Thursday 13 December 2018

Sarah Sanders on Donald Trump, Ireland and Patrick's Day at the White House

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)
Sarah Huckabee Sanders (Susan Walsh/PA)

Jason O'Brien in Washington DC

The White House press office is, in fact, a warren of pretty, plush - but tiny - rooms in the West Wing, with the constant rat-a-tat tapping of keyboards the only signal that this is where a little shape is put on the chaos before it is presented to the world.

Sean Spicer walks out of his former office, sees waiting patiently and says, with a laugh, "Be nice to her".

Sarah Sanders was parachuted into the role of White House press secretary last July, when Donald Trump decided Spicer wasn't dancing enough to his tune.

Given the frankly incredible approach of the Trump administration, it is arguably the most-difficult job in media, probably an impossible challenge, and potentially career-defining, but almost-certainly in a negative way.

And they are the good points.   

"It seems all of our days are quite busy," she says, with a smile, and an American-sized portion of understatement.

She's wearing a dark green dress, and is set to attend an Irish-themed event shortly. The St Patrick's Day celebrations are, unsurprisingly, also why Spicer is back in the White House. Yep, it's all about Ireland even when, patently, it is really all about expelling Russian agents, sacking Secretaries of State, law suits with porn stars... at least this week.

"I think the Presidet has an interest in Ireland. I think he likes the tradition of St Patrick's Day at the White House. It's a mix of both a serious discussion early in the day, paired with something more light-hearted and fun in the evening," she says.

"I think he enjoyed it last year. If he hadn't he probably wouldn't have done it again."

The Donald, of course, knows his own mind, even if the rest of us struggle to keep up.

And that may impact adversely on some of those serious discussions earlier on Thursday, including the Taoiseach's plans to position Ireland as a "bridge" or intermediary between the US and Europe after Brexit.

Her boss, Ms Sanders feels, likes to do his business face-to-face, and is unlikely to appreciate anyone else getting involved - even if the Irish delegation is at pains to say it only wants to smooth over potential "conflicts and disagreements".

"Typically the president likes to deal directly in conversations, and while I know that he appreciates the strong relationship we have with Ireland, I don't think that (a role as an intermediary) would be necessary at this point," she says.

“I think we can play a role in interpreting America’s position better to the EU, and the EU’s position better to America," the Taoiseach said earlier in the week.

But the Donald is unlikely to bite, it seems.

Read more: 'Whenever there's a problem you call, we'll solve it - except trade' - Trump in jovial jibe at corporate tax rate

"He wants to continue to grow and strengthen the relationship we have with Ireland certainly. But I don't think that's impacted necessarily by relationships with other countries," Ms Sanders says.

Trade is a different matter, with Leo emboldened enough in Thursday's meet to suggest a new deal for the EU with the US. They spoke a lot about Irish-US trade too, with both sides keen to make connections.

And the Irish delegation, Ms Sanders feels, was also on a firmer footing with its attempts to deal on the 'undocumented'.

"The president is very big - whether it's trade or anything else - on things being very reciprocal and even, and having a fair playing field," she says.

John Deasy's plans to offer paths to citizenship for Americans living in Ireland in return for a deal on an estimated 10,000 Irish in America would seem a unlikely win, and a potential headache for the White House in terms of subsequent requests from other groups.

But the Irish delegation also sees a potential green light.

"The integration discussion was very positive and there was a clear indication from the American side that there is a clear desire there to make something happen," one source at the bilateral meeting told

"I think the administration will look at developing some proposals before ultimately looking to put something to Congress."

Ms Sanders can trace her ancestry on her mother's side back to Ireland - McCains - and visited Galway and Dublin six or seven years ago. There are a few weary-looking shamrock cupcakes on a desk outside her office, and a passing member of her team calls St Patrick's Day at the White House her favourite day of the year.

But there has been no detailed discussion about a visit to Ireland for her boss - next year or any other time - she says, despite all the talk about Doonbeg this week, and his aside in the Oval Office that it might help swing a few Irish American votes.

But Ireland - or more specifically its tax rate - is certainly on his mind. Well, at times.

"The president is always going to try to bring jobs back to America," Ms Sanders says.

Read more: Taoiseach makes rallying cry for 'faltering' American Dream as media banned from Pence meeting

"He hasn't been shy about the fact that he wants to build up the jobs market in the US, and to bring back good talent from overseas. Ireland is one of those places."

She didn't know about the next US Ambassador to Ireland.

At one stage last year, Sean Spicer was being touted as a possibility. That always seemed as ridiculous as the shamrock trousers he was wearing on Thursday night.

But while Leo said earlier this week that a new ambassador would be far more useful than a new special envoy to Northern Ireland - which had been promised by recently-ousted Rex Tillerson - it wasn't a topic that was raised at the meeting with Trump.

"I think that is still in train," a source on the Irish side said. "We don't have a clear indication. There have been signals about that position being filled. That wasn't discussed in any particular detail."

Ms Sanders, however, strongly believes that the access afforded the Taoiseach this week should not be underestimated.

"Any time you have two leaders on the world stage, talking together, talking about areas of mutual interest, talking about areas we can work together - particularly in a national security perspective, and an economic security perspective, those are always a positive," she says.

And then Ms Sanders has to end our meeting. There are fires to fight.

Online Editors

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